What does parable mean in literary terms

Parables and Parables

The literary character of the parables of Jesus

In contrast to allegory, Jesus' parables contain the matter itself directly. They bring the listener with his world directly into the narrated world. In this way, Jesus gave his listeners a new perspective on their lives. One can say pointedly that in the parables he short-circuited their everyday world and the kingdom of God, as it were. Jesus therefore believed that the parables had an immediate power of their own. This is what distinguishes his parable speech from that of early Judaism, which used parables either as illustrative or explanatory.

What all New Testament parables have in common is that they say only the bare essentials with just a few narrative passages. They are structured chronologically. The narrative strives straight for the punch line without digressing. This collects and focuses on the essentials. The listener experiences the chronological sequence as an objective stringency. This is supported by the fact that the punch line is usually told in great detail (so-called figure eight). Parables are often structured according to the popular rule de tri, i.e. the narrative follows a three-step process (cf.Mt 25: 14-30 - there even twice: 3 scenes and 3 servants).

Parables, parables and example stories

In parable research, a distinction is made between parables in the narrower sense and parables. The New Testament does not make that distinction. The word παραβολή / parabolic means likeness, parable, comparison, figurative word, riddle and allegory.

Parables in the narrower sense tell the addressee familiar processes and experiences that are usually made. By placing the rule of God in relation to this usual world and its laws, Jesus aims at the inner consent of the hearers to his message. An example is the parable of the four kinds of fields (Mk 4,3-9).

The parables, on the other hand, are interested in the special individual case. In the story, the listener is suddenly confronted with an extravagant twist in the course of events, which forces him to question his previous understanding of the world and to open himself to a new definition of meaning. Here the connection with the preaching of Jesus is particularly evident, which counted on the unexpected approach of the rule of God in the everyday world. An example is the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15: 11-32).

Often the third group of parables named is the example narratives, which can only be found in the Luke special property (Luke 10.30-35; 12.16-20; 16.19-31; 18.10-13). The peculiarity of these parables is seen in the fact that each figure is built up as a positive or negative example. Since this impression is mainly created by the editorial framework of the evangelist, the example narratives are mostly counted as parables in recent research.

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The texts on this page are taken from:

New Testament

Bull, Klaus-Michael: Bible study of the New Testament. The Canonical Scriptures and the Apostolic Fathers. Overviews - topic chapters - glossary, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 8th edition. 2018.